Matthew Dickenson writes:
In short, this is probably the best deal Obama was going to negotiate. It’s not like he didn’t try to get revenue increases on the table – in fact, he rejected the original Boehner deal because it didn’t have enough revenues. In the end, Obama didn’t have the political capital to leverage anything else from the House Republicans. (Amazingly, there is a cadre of hard-core activists including Democratic legislators who are, tonight, still urging him to invoke the 14th amendment!) I’m not saying Obama handled this flawlessly, although I’m hard pressed to point out obvious specific errors. But the result was always likely to come out pretty much where it did, when it did. I said as much, weeks ago.
I’ll be on tomorrow. Meanwhile, maybe some of you can tell me why so many very smart people have, since the day Obama was inaugurated, deluded themselves into thinking that this admittedly very smart man, albeit one with limited political experience at the national level, was somehow going to step into office and proceed to rewrite the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries?
Matthew doesn’t link to any people still claiming that Obama would radically transform how DC operates, probably because they don’t exist, and haven’t existed since the euphoria of winning the 2008 election. But putting aside Matthew’s condescending hyperbole, it’s true that progressives have been harshly critical of the President, including over this deal. Are progressives right? Could Obama have done better if he either had better priorities or were a better negotiator?
Regarding the debt ceiling negotiations, I tend to agree with Greg Sargent: Although I wish the President and other Democrats had taken a harder negotiating stance over the last few months, I’m not convinced it would have made any difference. The Republicans had a very credible threat that they’d destroy the economy if they didn’t get enormous concessions. Democrats, rightly, were unwilling to see that happen. Given the enormous disparity in negotiating leverage, it was inevitable that Republicans would win big.
But the Democrats should never have allowed themselves to be put in such a losing negotiating position.
Democrats and the President could have insisted on the debt ceiling being raised in return for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, as part of the tax cut negotiations at the end of 2010. Obama was asked about that at the time, and essentially said that he didn’t believe that Republicans, once in power, would hold the economy hostage in exchange for short-term policy change. (“…nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse… Once John Boehner is sworn in as Speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.”) That was not a smart thing for Obama to say.
Obama defender Mistermix writes:
I’ll agree that in hindsight it might have been smart for Obama to bundle a debt ceiling increase with the tax cut capitulation last December.
It’s not “hindsight”; in 2010, progressives were saying that Democrats needed to connect the tax cuts for the rich Republicans wanted with raising the debt ceiling, or exactly this would happen. Time has shown that progressives were correct.
But I’d be careful about adopting that position, because it’s been clear from the start that the House Republicans were itching for an opportunity to hold a hostage. The debt ceiling increase was just the first convenient opportunity for a hold up. If it hadn’t been the debt ceiling, the budget would have become the next non-crisis crisis.
This is deeply wrong, because not all hostages are equal. Most economists believe that not raising the debt ceiling would have a disastrous effect on the economy, both in the short and long terms. Democrats simply could not have allowed that to happen, which means that they had no credible “we’re walking away from the table” threat. Taking a deal — no matter how bad — was always a better outcome for Democrats than allowing the GOP to destroy the US economy. Republicans knew that.
If the Republicans had to pick some other hostage — the annual budget, say — Democrats would have been in a better negotiating position, because they could credibly say that there are worse outcomes than a temporary government shutdown.
Obama made a ridiculous error by not attempting to deal with the debt ceiling in 2010; the result of his error is a bad deal that will lead to greater suffering and unemployment among poor Americans. He deserves a great deal of criticism for that.
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Many progressives criticize Obama for not publicly embracing “The constitutional option,” or the 14th Amendment option, as a negotiating tactic. I think this criticism of Obama is mistaken. The Constitutional Option might have been the best of the bad options if no deal had been reached, but it wasn’t a useful negotiating tool.1 As David Frum pointed out, Obama embracing the constitutional option could have made the House GOP even more extreme, by reassuring them that “they can be as intransigent as they want at no ultimate cost to themselves, because the president will invent a solution to the crisis they caused.”
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Finally, there’s the matter of liberal credibility. Obama had a lot of it when elected, but has for the most part lost it since then. Republicans in Congress have effectively blocked progressive laws since the 2008 (other than the Affordable Care Act, potentially the biggest progressive victory of my lifetime). But how you lose matters, and Obama has persistently lost badly.
By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.
Let’s take an example of a lose: immigration. [….]
Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama’s skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side. This unnecessarily splits those who support the Democrats on whether or not to support these actions. It doesn’t name the opponents of the effort to figure out ways of deploying pressure to change things. Without an obvious fight it’s not signaled that it was a priority. And the ultimate problem is that it doesn’t leave the coalition in better shape for the next battle.
And note that even where Obama is relatively unconstrained by Congress, he’s still gone against many of the progressive promises he made when he was a candidate. On issues of war, transparency, going after whistleblowers, wiretaps, deportations, medical marijuana, whitewashing torture — all issues where Obama can act without a vote from Congress — Obama has consistently shown priorities are well to the right of progressive beliefs, as well as well to the right of his campaign promises.
In order for progressives to cut him much slack when he loses a major negotiation, as happened this week, Obama would have to have earned credibility among progressives. He hasn’t done this. Progressives rightly believe they don’t owe Barack Obama much benefit of the doubt.
- This is a bit different from some of my earlier thinking. This is because sometimes I change my mind. :-p [↩]